You've Got Repression!
If you're a big fan of America Online, I apologize in advance. I'm going
to pick on them. The most wondrous part of it all though, is that I can. I
may get flamed by AOL fans, but no one will show up on my doorstep tomorrow
asking me to accompany them to the offices of some shadowy government branch
for questioning and "debriefing." Not only am I able to express my
opinion, I'm able to publish it. Isn't that terrific?
A keen observer of the news need not search for very long to discover
that this is not the case in many spots on the globe. More than a few
countries today adore the idea of the trade that can be fostered by a
burgeoning Internet economy, but are torn between the desire to allow free
Web-based trade and risk that their citizens will have access to
"dangerous" information. For the sake of example, I'm going to
focus on the People's Republic of China.
Currently, consumer Internet usage in China is doubling every six months.
The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) reported that by the
end of June 2001, 17 million Chinese citizens were online. Currently, all Web
traffic in China is supposed to be routed through government-maintained
servers, which check for information the Chinese Ministry of Information
Industry deems dangerous, harmful or subversive. This includes foreign news
sites, pornography, dissident political Web sites, anything related to
Taiwan, Web sites that provide information on the forbidden spiritual
movement Falun Gong and details about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre,
among many other topics. The government maintains an official agency to
pursue what it considers crimes on the Internet (publishing subversive
information) and rule-breakers are actively pursued and jailed on a regular
Under rules set down by Chinese Internet regulation laws that went into
effect in the autumn of 2000, the ban on "subversive" material
covered chat rooms and instant messaging. Service providers are required to
act as nannies over the content of chats, ensuring that nothing perceived as
contrary to the Communist Party's official line be passed through their
gates. Have you been waiting for AOL to come back into the picture? Can you
guess what my thread is?
Who is the largest ISP on the planet? Who broadly declares that they
invented instant messaging? Who is the largest provider of IM in the world?
Last questionwho is itching to break into the lucrative Chinese ISP
The suspense, rampant as it was, is over. In June of this year, AOL Time
Warner forged a deal
with the largest manufacturer of PCs in China, Legend Holdings Ltd. (the
company owns 39 percent of the PC market in China). Though AOL cannot yet
begin offering its services in mainland China (that must wait until China is
approved to join the World Trade Organization), it has become clear that AOL
is chomping at the bit to gain access to what could soon become the largest
online community in the world.
So what happens when AOL begins offering services in China and the
Ministry of Information Industry begins demanding the ISP monitor chat rooms
and report the names and e-mail addresses of dissidents? AOL's answer,
according to the Washington Post, was a memo that read, "It is our
policy to abide by the laws of the countries in which we offer services. We
will work with government officials and our partner in China to understand
and comply with the regulations that govern online services in China."
Uh-huh. Including complying with rules that require that AOL report
anyone who sends a "dangerous" message, such as, for instance,
"The Chinese government killed many hundreds of people in Tiananmen
Square in 1989"? Were I a Chinese journalist working in China right
now, typing that phrase would earn me a visit from the shadowy men who
specialize in handing out attitude adjustments. Additionally, AOL has a
number of alliances with entertainment companies and the retailers that sell
movies, CDs and books. Considering that the Chinese minister of propaganda
has referred to Western films as "spiritual pollution," it's
unclear how the company intends to keep its traditional channels and receive
the stamp of approval from propagandists at the same time.
Indicating plans to follow AOL down the garden path that is the Chinese
consumer market, many U.S.-based companies have insisted that their mere
presence in countries with poor human rights records will bring Western
values to human rights-challenged countries. Rightjust like keeping a
picture of a police officer in my pocket would keep me from jaywalking.
Predictably, many human rights groups have already stepped forward to
challenge AOL Time Warner on what its policy will be in terms of complying
with Chinese government restrictions on ISPs. AOL International's chairman,
Michael Lynton, reported to the Washington Post that, "issues about
privacy have to be looked at in a local context."
I don't know about anyone else, but I hear that as, "we'll rat
anyone out to anyone as long as we can make a buck." AOL has recently
admitted that it is seeing profits flattening out as the U.S. market becomes
saturated. In my opinion, the company loses business when Internet users
gain confidence surfing the net without AOL's hand-holding interface and
depart for the greener pastures of cheaper ISPs with fewer restrictions.
I'm pleased to see that some groups have already stepped forward to prod
large companies such as AOL to acquire a social conscience in a big hurry.
Human rights groups have warned AOL, along with other companies seeking to
acquire ISP licenses from China, that they intend to remain vigilant.
On the other side of the coin from AOL, a few organizations and
individuals have made it their crusade to supply software and proxy servers
to Chinese citizens who find Web sites they wish to access blocked by
Chinese government firewalls. A group called Voice of America,
a multimedia broadcast service funded by the U.S. government, is planning to
implement a software called Triangle Boy which will fool Chinese firewalls
into allowing Web surfers to access banned sites. Voice of America
broadcasts over 900 hours of news and other programs each week to an
audience estimated to be 91 million strong worldwide. Predictably, many
countries block citizens' access to Voice of America programming, which acts
as a kind of multimedia, global version of Radio Free Europe.
Triangle Boy was developed by a company called Safe Web,
I'll admit, in case you were unable to figure it out by now, that I am not a
big fan of AOL. I find the company's services expensive, limiting and
anti-competitive, and I have never liked their omnipresent hard-sell
marketing tactics. They do, however, have a right to whichever marketing
tactics they choose. What I don't believe they have the right to do is make
money at the expense of freedom of speech.
I would ultimately like to think the U.S. government will take some
responsibility in ensuring that certain standards are upheld when U.S.-based
deal with countries that have less-than-stellar human rights records.
Did I mention that Secretary of State Colin Powell is a former member of
AOL's board of directors?
The author may be flamed at firstname.lastname@example.org.